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Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930
Chapter 1: Settlement

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[This information is from pp. 1-51 of Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930 by Dr. Robert R. Pascucci (State University of New York at Albany, Department of History, 1984). It is copyrighted by Dr. Pascucci and reproduced here with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 325.24 PAS.]

Settled in 1662 as a fur-trading outpost, Schenectady remained a "sleepy little Dutch town" until the Erie Canal and the railroads infused commercial vitality. Glorying in the midst of its later development, however, Schenectady boosters condescendingly observed that in 1880, on the threshold of its greatest development, the city had scarcely reached a population of 15,000 people and its "chief boast to fame" was Union College. When Thomas Edison relocated his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady, a "golden era" began for what became known as the "Electric City." (1)

Although both the Italian and Polish communities of Schenectady were products of the late-nineteenth-century industrial development of the city, Poles appeared as early as the late 1790s when several members of the well known Zabriskie family arrived from Albany. (2) John Lansing Zabriskie was a member of the first graduating class of Schenectady's Union College in 1797 and was later ordained a Dutch Reformed minister. Another member of the family, Andrew Zabriskie, a merchant, was appointed police commissioner of the city. Of course, one may argue that these fourth and fifth generation non-Polish-speaking Zabriskies hardly deserve to be regarded as Schenectady's first Poles. Assimilated, Protestant and upper class, the Zabriskies certainly bear but faint resemblance to the numerous Polish immigrants who arrived in Schenectady a century later. (3)

Following the visit of the Polish aristocrat and former adjutant-general to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, who stopped briefly in Schenectady during an extended tour of the United States, no Poles settled in the city permanently until the arrival in 1866 of Ludwig Gapczynski and his wife, Angela. Born in Prussian Poland, Gapczynski emigrated to the United States in 1855 and settled in New York City, where he resumed his trade as a tailor until 1864 when he enlisted in the Union army. A year after his discharge, Gapczynski arrived in Schenectady and opened a tailor shop on Veeder Avenue. Following a serious injury to his hands, which prevented him from continuing as a tailor, Gapczynski opened a grocery store on Ferry Street. Years later, when the Polish community began to develop, he became an immigrant "banker." Besides providing the Poles with regular banking services, he acted as an interpreter, bail bondsman, notary public and steamship agent. Considered the "father" of Schenectady's Poles, Gapczynski lived in the city until his death in 1904. (4)

Other Poles began to settle in the city, but their numbers remained insignificant well into the 1880s. (5) Similarly, few Italians sought work in Schenectady until the last decades of the century. In fact, the 1865 state census recorded but one. During the following decade, transient Italians appeared in the city. Approximately two thousand Italian laborers were strung out between Schenectady and Utica laying track for the New York Central. The Evening Star reported a colony of fifty such workers living temporarily in a house on Nott Street under the direction of their padrone and his wife, who charged the men fifty cents a day for room and board. Observing that another one hundred such laborers were expected in the city, the paper, perhaps in in attempt to reassure a concerned public, related that the immigrant workers were known to "work hard, keep sober, and to diligently attend to their own business." The next year (1875) the track gangs had moved on, and the only Italians found in the city were a peanut vendor and his family. The listing of his daughters' birthplaces in the manuscript census indicates that the itinerant had settled temporarily in at least two places, New York City and Albany, before pausing in Schenectady. (6) In a mocking tone, the Evening Star described the impact of the current hard times on a group of "odorous" organ grinders who had arrived three days before, but finding little financial appreciation for their musical efforts ("no get no one dolleyar") were about to abandon the city for Boston. Schenectadians again witnessed bands of Italian laborers during the early 1880s when the construction of the West Shore Railroad brought the line a few miles outside the city limits in South Schenectady. During the whole progress of the work, trainloads of Italians were reported passing through the community. (7) An account of a fire revealed the existence of Italian lodgers on Fonda Street. Once more, the Evening Star felt compelled to reassure the public that the newcomers "mind their own business" and that

After being here long enough they fall in with customary ways to sufficient extent to spruce up some. (8)

In the midst of the transient population, one Italian immigrant, Pasquale DeMarco, remained and would become the most financially successful and, perhaps, the most influential member of the Italian community. Described in later years as the "pioneer of us all," young DeMarco left Alvignano, province of Caserta, for the United States in 1881 and a year later, working as a railroad laborer, came to Schenectady. The ambitious DeMarco, a graduate of the city's night schools, soon quit his job on the railroad to open a candy store on State Street. Abandoning this line of business, he went to New York City to learn barbering and, on his return to Schenectady, opened a shop. Gradually combining the function of an immigrant banker, DeMarco hired assistant barbers as the banking business absorbed more of his time. In his three-story brick "DeMarco Building" on Jay Street, the top two floors were rented to Italian families; the barbershop occupied the front half of the ground floor while to the rear of the shop was his bank (La Banca Italiana). As a typical immigrant banker, DeMarco acted as an intermediary for his fellow immigrants in their contacts with their new environment as well as with the old country. Performing a variety of services for the Italians, DeMarco interpreted for them, bailed them out of jail, banked their money, lent them money, sent remittances to Italy, notarized documents, and acted as an agent for over a dozen steamship companies. And in 1904, leading a group of fifty Schenectady Italians, he boarded the steamship Germania for a visit to Italy. This "dapper little gentleman," whose framed coat of arms and pedigree (supplied by an "heraldic Armorist of Rome") claimed a lineage from thirteenth-century kingdom of Naples nobility, also became a founder and trustee of St. Anthony's Church, an active participant in party politics and an officer of various Italian societies. (9)

The growth rate of both immigrant communities remained sluggish until the establishment in 1886 of the General Electric Company (originally named the Edison Works). An increasing demand for laborers by General Electric and the expanding American Locomotive Company (then known as the Locomotive Works) generated another business development and occasioned a major influx of people to Schenectady. (10) From 31,682 persons in 1900, the city's population expanded during the next ten years to 72,826. This increase of 129.9 percent marked Schenectady as one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. (11)

The decade of the 1880s closed with the two immigrant groups similar in size. The county contained 221 Italian and 196 Polish foreign-born residents. By 1892, however, the Italian population had stagnated while the Polish continued to grow. The state manuscript census for that year shows that 190 Italians and 334 Poles were living in the city. With their native-born children included, the figures were 224 and 383 respectively. In addition to the numerical difference between the two ethnic groups, the census exposes a diversity in the composition of Italian and Polish households (see Table 1.1). Boarders were abundant in both colonies, but among Italians they outnumbered male heads of households 2.6:1 and constituted 57 percent of all Italian adults and 42 percent of the total Italian population. The ratio of Polish boarders to male heads of households was less (1.7:1), as was the percentage of boarders among Polish adults (43.2 percent) and within the Polish community as a whole (26.4 percent). Italian boarders seemed all the more visible because of the smaller number of children per Italian household than among the Poles (1.6 to 2.5). (12)

Table 1.1

Italian and Polish Population in Schenectady — 1892
Male Heads of Household3616.05815.1
Male Boarders9442.010126.4
Wives & Related Adult Females3817.06717.5
Female Boarders (domestics)143.7
Children (incl. native born)5625.014337.3

Source: NYSMC, 1892.

The depression that befell the country in 1893 sorely tested the determination of the immigrants to remain in Schenectady. Caroline Golab has noted that the Polish workingman found it easier to survive in America if he were married. By combining the incomes of husband, wife and children, the family was a unit better able to achieve security and weather hard times. (13) In Schenectady during the 1890s, however, Italian and Polish husbands generally provided the only income in the family. The 1892 state census, conducted a year before the economy soured, listed no Italian wives as working and only two Poles who were employed at home as dressmakers. Since most families were young in the newly established immigrant colonies, few children were employed. Boarders provided families additional income but, as layoffs began, these unattached males tended to move elsewhere in search of work. (14)

The suffering that attended the economic crisis in the city reportedly struck a crippling blow to Poles, whose greater percentage of families and children made them less willing to move on. With a crowd of the impoverished gathered around seeking his help, the settlement's first pastor, Father Dereszewski, explained to the press that at least seven Polish families were actually starving, while fifty other families and thirty single men were in considerable distress and in great need of aid. Though portraying the scene in sympathetic tones, the Evening Star, as was customary, sought a mirthful response from its readers at the expense of the newcomers. Describing the destitute Poles, the paper remarked that the group included "a woman, whose name the reporter could neither pronounce, spell nor understand…" (15)

The inadequate relief provided by the city amounted to $1.25 per family a week. Of the ninety native and foreign-born applicants in one week, nineteen were Poles. Furnishing more empathy and self-serving publicity than hard cash, the publisher of the Evening Star offered the services of his paper in operating a fund for the needy, and launched the enterprise with his own commitment to contribute one dollar a week. Subsequently, two local bakers donated seven hundred loaves of bread. To the newly organized relief committee, Mayor Clute appointed Stanislaw Kowalski, a "prominent Polander." When Kowalski suggested that something more permanent than charity was required, such as the city creating jobs for the unemployed, the idea was quietly ignored in favor of continued voluntarism. (16)

In the midst of a resurgent economy that followed the depression of the mid-1890s, the Italians were becoming less transient and more settled. In recognition of the emerging immigrant community, but probably due more to the efforts of the enterprising Pasquale DeMarco, George Marlette added an Italian section to his 1897 city directory, which listed Italian adult males and their addresses in both the city and other locations in the county. The "Italian Directory" was based on a broader census conducted by DeMarco. (17) On comparing the data collected by DeMarco and those of the state census of five years earlier, the growing stability of the Italian colony becomes apparent (see Table 1.2).

Table 1.2

Percentage of Adults and Children in Italian Population — 1892 and 1897
YearAdult MalesAdult FemalesChildrenTotal

Source: NYSMC, 1892; Record, December 20, 1929.

The proportion of women, who all but a few were married and living with their husbands, grew from 22.6 to 29.3 percent of the adult population. Children who had comprised 25 percent of the community in 1892, five years later, constituted 33 percent. Adult males who had been a majority of the colony's population (58 percent) were outnumbered in 1897 by women and children who then comprised 52.7 percent of all native and foreign-born members of the immigrant community. During the same period, the proportion of heads of household rose from 29.2 percent of all adult Italian males to 41.5 percent. Later in arriving than the Poles, the Italians, nevertheless, developed by the end of the decade the nucleus of a stable, family-based community.

The city's growing need for laborers was satisfied largely by immigrants. This demand created a growth rate among the immigrants that far surpassed that of the city as a whole for decades (see Table 1.3). While the city population between 1890 and 1900 grew by 58.7 percent, foreign-born Italians increased 174.7 percent and Poles, their fastest rate, a remarkable 783.7 percent. Ten years later, the Italian-born population recorded the greatest percentage of development (503) as did the city as a whole (129.9).

Table 1.3

Percentage Increase of Italian and Polish Foreign-Born in Schenectady Population 1890 — 1930
Total City Population58.7129.98.17.9

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eleventh Census: 1890, Miscellaneous Documents, II, 655-656; Twelfth Census: 1900. Population, II, 800-803; Thirteenth Census: 1910. Population, III, 260; Fourteenth Census: 1920. Population, III, 720; Fifteenth Census: 1930. Population, III, Part 2, 390-391.

Large-scale Polish immigration to Schenectady extended from 1890 to 1910 (see Tables 1.3 and 1.5). Thereafter the influx sharply declined and by the end of the period under study (1930) reversed itself. The peak of 4,316 foreign-born Poles was reached in 1920 following a decade of slight growth (2.3 percent). The sharp reduction (18 percent) in the Polish foreign born lowered their number to 3,648, a figure originally achieved more than twenty years earlier. (18) At their height in 1920, however, Schenectady's Poles ranked the largest in the Capital District area. Albany, despite its greater total population of 100,253, was a distant second with only 1,414 foreign-born Poles. In fact, Schenectady, with 4,316 first-generation Poles, contained one of the largest Polish communities in the state (see Table 1.4). Only New York City, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse had more foreign-born Poles. The size of the Polish population of Schenectady is even more impressive since Syracuse and Rochester each contained nearly the same number of Polish immigrants as did Schenectady yet had total city populations that were more than two and three times larger, respectively. (19)

Table 1.4

Cities in New York State with the Largest Polish-Born Populations, 1920
CityNumber of Poles
New York City145,679

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census: 1920. Population, III, 720-725.

Table 1.5

Italian and Polish Population in Schenectady 1890 — 1930
(Foreign Born)221*6073,6605,3785,910
Percentage of Total foreign born5.08.619.626.229.3
(Foreign Born)1961,7324,2214,3163,648
Percentage of Total foreign born4.524.222.721.118.1
Total Foreign-Born Population4,3827,16918,63120,49020,162
Percentage of City Population22.022.625.623.121.1
Total City Population19,90231,68278,82688,72395,692

* Schenectady County. City figures not reported.

Source: See Table 1.3 sources.

Although lasting for twenty years also, mass Italian immigration to Schenectady, by contrast, was a twentieth century phenomenon, starting a decade after the Polish and continuing for ten years longer (see Table 1.5). By 1920, Italians had become the most numerous immigrant contingent in the city (see Table 1.6). Between 1920 and 1930, the period of heavy immigration over, the Italian population increased by a moderate 9.9 percent and attained its greatest number of foreign born (5,910). The largest ethnic group in the Albany-Troy-Schenectady area, the city's Italians exceeded in number its only rival, Albany, where 4,015 foreign-born Italians lived. (20) Within the state, Schenectady's Italian colony was the seventh largest (see Table 1.7). Particularly visible among the immigrants in Schenectady, Italians comprised 29.3 percent of all those born abroad, a percentage surpassed in the state only by Utica, Mount Vernon and Rochester, respectively. At the close of the settlement phase for the two immigrant groups in 1930, the federal census numbered, including native-born children, 14,233 Italians and 9,965 Poles. (21)

Table 1.6

Immigrant Groups in Schenectady 1920
Canada — French307
All other countries1,946

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census: 1920. Population, III, 720.

Table 1.7

Largest Italian Communities in New York State 1930
CityTotal No. Foreign BornItalian-Born
New York City2,293,400440,25019.2
Niagara Falls24,4675,37021.9
Mount Vernon14,2794,58132.1

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census: 1930. Population, III, Part 2, 298, 299, 301.

Other Polish newcomers joined Gapczynski on Veeder Avenue where a small colony arose by 1875. As the number of newcomers increased, a second settlement sprung up north of State Street in the district bounded by Nott Terrace, Liberty and Lafayette Streets. Known as "Little Castle Garden," here were found two multiple-family dwellings where new arrivals found temporary lodging before locating more permanent accommodations. Aware of their function as an informal receiving and clearing center, the policemen on duty at the railroad station regularly directed Polish strangers to the area. Within easy walking distance of each of the colonies was the German Catholic church, St. Joseph's. Since so many of the "pioneers" were natives of the German partition and spoke German, they had gravitated toward familiar surroundings. Somewhat later in the 1880s, a third settlement developed downtown at the other end of State Street on such streets as Water, Railroad, South Church and South Ferry. Hemmed in by the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River and lower State Street, the colony abutted the "Stockade," the site of the original Dutch settlement, and later, the residence of the more substantial, old-stock families of Schenectady. Ludwig Gapczynski relocated and operated a grocery store that served the Poles who had found work nearby with the railroad, the wire factory, and Westinghouse, a manufacturer of agricultural implements. (22)

In the latter 1880s, two additional locations were inhabited, one adjacent to the developing General Electric Company in the Fifth Ward and the other at the northern end of the city where Poles sought housing close to the locomotive works in the Third Ward. The manuscript schedules of the 1892 state census reveal that the center of settlement had shifted from uptown to the three river wards which contained nearly three-fourths of the Poles. Between the two much larger colonies was the small First Ward group which contained only 4.2 percent of the total Polish community (383). To the south, another 29 percent were found in the Fifth Ward and the largest group (41.3 percent) was located to the north in the Third Ward. (23)

[Map of Schenectady from the 1899 city directory (197K, enlarged from low-quality copy)]

Unlike the Poles who first settled on the upper (eastern) periphery of the city, Italian newcomers located downtown, primarily in the Third Ward. In fact, three-fourths of the Italian population in 1892 lived here in workers' housing that had been built largely following the establishment of the locomotive company in 1848. When Pasquale DeMarco compiled the Italian supplement for the city directory of 1897, the high concentration remained unchanged. Of all the adult males that DeMarco listed, almost 80 percent had addresses in the Third Ward. Most lodged in the Front Street area, located between the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, on Front, Monroe, Jefferson and John Streets. Beyond the canal, other First Ward Italians dwelled on either side of the Delaware and Hudson and New York Central tracks on such streets as Pine and Warren as well as Myers Alley. (24)

Table 1.8

Italian and Polish Population by Ward in 1892 and 1900

Source: Compiled from NYSMC, 1892; USFMC, 1900. (Immigrant populations include native-born children.)

At the end of the century, the general pattern of settlement of the two immigrant groups appeared largely unaltered (see Table 1.8). The great majority of Italians were associated with a single ward, but Poles were distributed in three somewhat equally-sized colonies. A comparison of the 1892 and 1900 census shows, however, that while the percentage of the total Polish population in the Fourth and Fifth wards had increased, that in the Third Ward had declined. Poles sought the western part of the city to be near their church, St. Mary's, which had been erected in 1892, and to take advantage of the better living conditions available among the new two-family, frame houses being constructed. As more Poles found employment in the economically vital General Electric Company, the desirability of the nearby Weaver Street section of the Fifth Ward was enhanced. Ordinarily, Italians also preferred to live near their work places, but since so many of them at this time were day laborers who worked on a variety of projects in different parts of the city, cheap rents, which provided the opportunity to live in a large colony of their own people, explained the popularity of the Third Ward. (25)

The downtown areas of Italian and Polish settlement contained some of the worst housing in the city. Structures were often poorly ventilated and grossly overcrowded. A Union Star reporter accompanied Superintendent Clarence M. Abbott of the humane society on an inspection tour in 1903 of Italian tenements on John and Jefferson Streets in the Front Street district of the Third Ward. In one three-story, frame structure, which had a grocery on the ground floor, they visited the second floor:

Men, women and children were huddled in small rooms, dirt and filth were everywhere present, and the stench that emanated from the place was almost unbearable. Ragged, dirty, unkept children were running hither and thither, some crying, others playing, and all totally unconscious of their surroundings.

On returning to the street, they took up pursuit of a youngster toting an empty beer pitcher. The outraged pair followed him into a saloon and threatened the bartender with dire consequences as he provided a refill obviously meant for an adult in the boy's home. Resuming their investigations, Abbott and the reporter entered a building on Jefferson Street that was owned by an Italian banker-saloonkeeper who conducted both businesses on the first floor. The upper levels consisted of narrow rooms, without ventilation that contained seventy-five to one hundred people who, the uninvited visitors described, lived amidst filth, "the accumulation of years," and general conditions that "begged description." (26) In an article entitled "The Slums of Schenectady," local Socialist leader, Hawley VanVechten, questioned whether the general belief that Schenectady, compared to other cities, was a "paradise" for workers, included the unskilled and foreign born. Responding indirectly, VanVechten offered a description of the harsher realities of life for many of those who lived in the city's two "Little Italies" of the Third and Fifth Wards. Choosing the extremes of overcrowding and poverty, VanVechten told of a former varnish factory on River Street where 177 individuals were "herded together," of families struggling to survive on a father's wage of seventy to eighty cents a day, and of poorly fed children with clothes "not worth mentioning." While the unsympathetic superintendent of the humane society viewed the immigrants as merely problems who were probably responsible for their own misfortune, VanVechten indicated that the poor were far from being the captains of their destiny. Of course, the Socialist's account served as an implicit criticism of the failure of capitalism. (27) The superintendent of schools, A. R. Brubaker, also provided a glimpse of the hardships of the poor. Many children, he stated, were in such need that they were unable to attend school. He further reported that a survey of the elementary schools revealed 175 children in need of shoes, eighty poorly nourished, and others ill from inadequately heated homes. (28)

In 1910, the average household in the city contained 4.6 individuals. Italian and Polish families were larger (6.1 and 5.8 respectively), but hardly enough to support alone the contemporary belief that the immigrant quarters were overcrowded. Neither did the immigrants have an abundance of children at this time. Both groups had an average of just under three children per family. While the number of children in Italian families increased gradually from 1.8 to 2.4 between 1900 and 1910, the number, although larger, within Polish families remained unchanged (2.9) between the two dates. Nevertheless, 15.8 percent of the Italian and 21.8 percent of the Polish families had five or more children. Of all Polish household members, half were children, and among Italians, only two-fifths were. (29)

Standing out in the immigrant population, however, were the male boarders. In 1900, they were found in 20 percent of all Polish households, but even more common, Italian boarders were a part of almost half (46.8.percent) of all Italian families. On the average, the Italian family took in one more boarder than the Polish, 3.5 to 2.5 respectively. In the Third Ward, where 78.7 percent of all Italian boarders lived, the number rose to 4.1 per household. Scattered throughout the Front Street neighborhood, however, were households with eight and nine boarders and one on John Street had eleven. The dominance of the Italian boarder becomes more apparent when one considers that two out of every five (40.8 percent) foreign-born Italians, largely adults, who were living in Schenectady in 1900 were boarders, while out of the Polish foreign-born, only one out of five (20.6 percent) boarded. But an excess of males was found in the city as a whole. At the end of its decade of greatest growth (1900-1910), Schenectady had become, compared to surrounding cities, a male-dominant workers' city (see Table 1.9). However, in the downtown wards, heavy with boarders, males were far more prevalent, 61.9 percent of the Third Ward and 59.9 percent of the Fifth. Of a 25 percent sample of foreign-born Italians and Poles listed in the 1910 federal manuscript census, 72.1 percent of the Italians in Schenectady were males and 66.7 percent of the Poles. (30)

Table 1.9

Percent of Males in Capital District — 1910

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census: 1910. Population, III, 251, 260-261.

The 1910 federal census documented that another phase of settlement had been underway since the beginning of the century. The 129.9 percent population growth that occurred during the decade created a demand for housing that the existing structures and populated areas could not accommodate. The city developed quickly from five to thirteen wards, which included the spacious areas of Bellevue and Mt. Pleasant, annexed from the town of Rotterdam. The building boom created a scarcity of carpenters and caused the price of materials to soar. In 1906 the Daily Union complained about the construction delays, citing some five hundred families unable to acquire homes and, nevertheless, predicted a city of 200,000 and encouraged people to put their "faith in Schenectady." City boomers accused the Schenectady (Street) Railway Company of limited residential growth, thus keeping land prices high, and threatening prosperity by its failure to extend trackage fast enough. Mayor Duryee insisted that the wage earner needed to escape the "evils of tenement life," and added enigmatically that the "home is one of the greatest aids of social service in any community." (31)

The older immigrant settlements had become increasingly congested. One enterprising Italian who sought to maximize rentals in the space-starved Fifth Ward was charged with a violation of the building code for erecting a three-story tenement on a two-story foundation. (32) Compared to even the other downtown wards, the Third and Fifth appeared excessively crowded (see Table 1.10). Each had more than twice the number of people per acre as the "Stockade" area (First Ward) located between the two. And outlying Mt. Pleasant, which would triple its population by 1920, would still appear almost bucolic with its density half that of the Third Ward. (33)

Table 1.10

Population Density of Schenectady 1906
WardPopulationNet Acres*Persons Per Acre

* Net acreage does not include water, cemeteries, railroads or corporate land not available for general building purposes.

Source: Daily Union, January 26, 1906.

[Map of Schenectady from the 1910 city directory (297K, enlarged from low-quality copy)]

By 1910 Italians and Poles, newcomers and established residents alike, were found in significant numbers outside the older colonies. Many had little choice but to look elsewhere because of the lack of space in the immigrant neighborhoods, but others desired better housing and living conditions. Most often, they located in adjoining sections whose former tenants had moved to the more distant tracts of new two-family houses. Home ownership among Italians grew modestly from 14.9 percent to 17.8 between 1900 and 1910. Although home owning was more widespread among the Poles, the proportion actually declined from 25.9 percent to 21.3 percent as the influx of Russian Poles entered the city, joining the more skilled and financially secure German Poles. Five major movements characterized the resettlement. To the northeast of the Third Ward immigrant settlement, Italians and Poles moved into that part of the Second Ward bordered by Nott Street, the tracks, and Van Vranken Avenue, particularly on Foster Avenue and its cross streets. From their settlement on Dobro Avenue and Blaine Street in the upper reaches of the Fourth Ward, the Poles filled in more densely the adjoining section of the new Sixth Ward (formerly a part of the Fourth Ward) that lies between Eastern Avenue and Vale Cemetery, east to Walnut Street. This, then distant area, had been first entered as early as the 1890s, when the Poles erected their church, St. Mary's. From the Fifth Ward, the immigrants moved in three directions. Italians went east, up the hill, on to Strong Street and spread into Summit, Mumford and Paige streets of the Thirteenth Ward where skilled workmen had formerly predominated. A smaller group of Italians, skirting the General Electric Company and the Delaware and Hudson tracks, found homes in Bellevue (Tenth Ward). Both Italians and, especially, Poles moved in large numbers into Mt. Pleasant (Ninth Ward). One colony of Poles arose near St. Adalbert's in the wedge of territory framed by Crane and Bridge streets. The larger group of Poles, however, was found on the other (south) side of Crane Street to Third Avenue and more heavily on Congress Street and the streets below (Cutler, Davis, Terrace, etc.) as far as Fifth Avenue. Italians were found in the lower part of the ward on South Centre Street and, with the Poles, along Congress and south to the crest of the hill above the New York Central tracks, as well as on Webster and Pleasant Streets. (34) Table 1.11 shows that the two groups had become almost equally diversified in their settlement. As in previous years, both groups were found in significant numbers (at least 2 percent) in some wards together (Two, Three, Five, Nine), but in others that Italians occupied, Poles were absent (Ten, Thirteen) and the reverse (One, Four, Six). While the Third Ward was still the site of the largest Italian community (37.4 percent), the Poles established themselves in such numbers in Mt. Pleasant that within the decade the settlement (27.3 percent) edged out their numbers in the Third Ward downtown.

Table 1.11

Italian and Polish Settlement by Ward 1910
WardForeign-Born ItaliansForeign-Born Poles

* Less than 2 percent

Source: Thirteenth Census: 1910. Population, III, 260; Poles were not identified as such in the printed abstract, but were in the manuscript schedules. These figures were thus computed from the 1910 federal manuscript census.

Refusal to rent to an Italian or a Pole because of his ethnic background was not uncommon even in the immigrant quarters. (35) But as the two ethnic groups moved into homes outside the old neighborhoods, more effective measures were employed to protect sections from immigrant incursion. Until the 1920s expansion into the Second Ward was largely confined to the workers' housing on the hill sloping west from Van Vranken Avenue. To prevent the more financially able from acquiring property east of Van Vranken, where substantial, attractive two-family homes were being constructed for largely older stock (German and Irish) skilled and white collar workers, James Felthousen, a land developer, required his buyers to agree to a restrictive clause that read:

It is understood and agreed that the Party of the second part is not to sell or convey said premises or any part thereof to any polish or italian [sic] person or persons and that no liquor shall be sold on said premises. (36)

Felthousen had divided his property into fifty lots in 1901, each typically 33' x 140' — 160'. Approximately nine to a row, the lots were located on the east side of Van Vranken Avenue and east, on parallel streets, along Avenues A, B and C. (37) Knowing that the restrictive clause would be in all the deeds, a prospective buyer was assured that the section was secure from the "new" immigrants. In some of the deeds, however, the restriction had a termination date. For example, lots seventeen and eighteen, measuring 58' x 140' each, were sold together for $1,460 on April 12, 1905. The purchaser was restricted from selling to Italians or Poles, but only until October 10, 1913, which would still give Felthousen ample time to sell his remaining lots. (38)

A more blatant, crude form of restriction, but with similar results, was found in real estate ads such as the one placed by a city realtor in the Union Star, that offered a free trolley ride to inspect a new tract of building lots (Maywood Gardens) along upper State Street. The headline announced that the sites were "For Americans" only, but, lest anyone misunderstand, the lengthy advertisement further specified that "land sold only to white Americans of English speaking, German or French decent." If any doubts were still to remain, the realtor advised, in conclusion, that "no lots will be sold to colored people or undesirable foreigners." (39) That the press had no compunctions about printing such offensive comments indicates that either prejudices were common and openly expressed or that paying advertisers were not to be discouraged. Even the editors of the city's Socialist weekly, The Citizen, did not hesitate to publish the advertisement of the Grand Rapids Furniture Store on Albany Street that announced shortly after the tragedy at sea:

The Lusitania has gone down and so have our prices. (40)

Table 1.12

Polish Immigrants in Schenectady 1900, 1910
 1900 Percent1910 Percent*
Austrian Poles5.412.6
German Poles27.114.9
Russian Poles65.371.8

* Based on 25 percent sample of Polish households.

Source: USFMC, 1900, 1910.

The Poles in Schenectady emigrated from all three partitions of Poland, but varied in numbers, and, to some degree, in stages of arrival. In 1900 the federal census counted 305 German Poles, which comprised 27.1 percent of all Poles in the city (see Table 1.12). But half of all German Poles who would come to Schenectady had arrived by 1900, and in 1910, nearly 50 percent of them lived in the Fourth and Sixth Wards, especially the latter. On streets such as Eastern Avenue, they lived among Germans, and some of them attempted to pass as Germans. The 1900 and 1910 manuscript schedules provide examples of individuals who spoke Polish and had Polish names but, perhaps finding it more advantageous to identify with the Germans, were listed as Germans. Some, and in a couple of cases their parents as well, had been born in Germany where Poles had migrated in search of work. Speaking German and, in some cases with German wives, they, perhaps, regarded themselves as Germans. In this area of Schenectady, the changing of Polish names was more commonly found. On occasion, German surnames were chosen, but more often, names that sounded American, for example: "William Redgat," "John Barney," and "Joseph Columbus." (41)

The Polish community in Schenectady was formed, in large measure, by emigrants from Russian Poland. In 1900 Russian Poles were 65.3 percent of the population, and ten years later their proportion rose even higher, to 71.8 percent. The vast majority (90 percent) of these Poles came from the Congress Poland area of the Russian annexation. And from here, 96.6 percent had emigrated from four of ten provinces, Warzawa, Płock, Łomza and Suwałki (see Table 1.13). (42)

Table 1.13

Immigrants from Congress Poland
Total — All100.0

Source: St. Adalbert's Marriage Registers, 1903-1907.

[Map of Poland (circa 1910) [50K, enlarged from low-quality copy]

The Austrian or Galician Poles were the last to settle in Schenectady, immigrating after 1900, primarily. By 1900, their percentage of the population was slightly smaller than that of the German Poles (12.6 percent to 14.9 percent, respectively).

The observation that Pasquale DeMarco made to a Schenectady Gazette reporter that the Italian colony consisted of Neapolitans, primarily, is supported by the marriage records of St. Anthony's Church. (43) During the years 1918-1922, the pastor, Rev. Michael Bianco, listed both the village and provincial birthplaces of the spouses. Of the 383 men married in St. Anthony's, then the only Italian church in the city, nearly three-fifths were natives of the Campania, the region in which Naples is located (see Table 1.14). Another one-fifth originated from Abruzzi-Molise and Sicily. Thus, four out of five came from just three southern regions. Built largely on chain migration, communities often varied in their regional origins. In Rochester, almost half of the Italians were Sicilians, but only 14.5 percent came from Campania. In Utica, the greatest number of immigrants emigrated from Apulia (36 percent) and the central Italian province of Latium (26.5 percent). Only 8.4 percent of Utica Italians, however, were born in Campania. (44)

[Map of Italy — Regions & Provinces (100K, enlarged from low-quality copy)]

Table 1.14

Region of Origin of Schenectady Italians
Abruzzi and Molise5213.2

Source: St. Anthony's Marriage Registers, 1918-1922.

Table 1.15

Province of Origin of Schenectady Italians from Campania

Source: St. Anthony's Marriage Registers, 1918-1922.

Provincial origins were also diverse and disproportionately represented in the population. Of the five provinces in Campania, the overwhelming number of Schenectady Italians came from Caserta, 62.7 percent, and Benevento, 21.9 percent (see Table 1.15). Applying these figures to the colony as a whole, it can be estimated that 50 percent of all Schenectady Italians were Neapolitans from either Caserta or Benevento. Although the sample is much smaller for the other regions, the situation is similar. Among the Abruzzese, 51.9 percent came from Chieti and 29 percent from Campobasso, two of the region's five provinces. Finally, four-fifths of the Sicilians had been born in just two of the island's nine provinces: Messina (51.4 percent) and Palermo (29.7 percent).

However, no heavy concentration of village birthplaces existed. Immigrant origins were found among a diversity of communes, yet enough came from particular ones to indicate the operation of small chains of migration, probably family-based. For the 146 bridegrooms from Caserta, forty-five communes were recorded. Although thirty-two (71 percent) of these provided only one or two emigrants to Schenectady, four accounted for more than 10 percent of the individuals each: Fondi Chiari (11 percent), Caiazzo (13.7 percent) and Alvignano (17.8 percent). Similarly, half of the small sample of individuals from the province of Benevento were spread thinly among thirteen different communal birthplaces, the other half were born in either Limatola (19.5 percent) or Dugento (29 percent.) (45)

At first glance, the marriages contracted in Schenectady seem to support the idea that campanilismo (localism) played a strong role in the choice of partners. Of the 393 couples married at St. Anthony's between 1913 and 1920, 27.7 percent shared the same village birthplace. Because of the small number of individuals per commune and the relative scarcity of marriageable-aged women in the city, however, males generally did not meet their future wives in Schenectady, but rather arranged marriages with women in their villages at home. The frequency of couples sharing the same address at the time of their marriage indicates that the bride had recently arrived in the city for the purpose of getting married. Occasionally these "picture brides," on arrival, rejected their intended spouses who were often middle-aged before they felt financially able to take a wife. One unfortunate was spurned by two successive "brides" after having paid sixty dollars for their passage. (46)

Table 1.16

Italian and Polish Couples in Schenectady 1900, 1910
 Percentage of Husbands Who Arrived FirstNo. of Years Husbands Preceded Wives

Source: Compiled from USFMC, 1900, 1910.

A similar number of Italian and Polish couples listed in the 1900 manuscript schedules had married in Europe, 45.9 percent and 42.5 percent, respectively. However, 47.7 percent of the Italian husbands emigrated alone and 39.6 percent of the Polish (see Table 1.16). But the Poles remained longer (2.7 years) than the Italians (1.6 years) before sending for their wives. Ten years later (1910), when the number of German Poles in Schenectady, who generally left home in family groups, was dwarfed by incoming Russian Poles, more than half of the Polish husbands (55.9 percent) arrived without their wives. Conversely, the percentage of Italian couples who entered the country together increased. The years that the males of both nationalities spent alone increased, with the Poles still preceding their wives (3.2 years) for a longer time than the Italians (2.7 years). The 1910 manuscript schedules, containing information unavailable in the 1900 census, show that among the Italian couples, seventeen males had lived in the United States on the average of 10.9 years before returning to Italy to marry. Thereupon, they left their brides, re-emigrated and remained in this country for 4.6 more years before their wives followed them. For those whose wives had not arrived, their years alone were even longer. Many of these males had no intention of sending for their spouses and eventually returned home to stay. In the 1900 immigrant population, 26 percent of Italian boarders and 25 percent of Polish were married. For both groups, husbands were without their wives for a similar period of time, 4.3 and 4.6 years, respectively. At this time, the average age of boarders, regardless of marital status, was thirty-one for the Italians and thirty for the Poles. In 1910 the proportion of those married among the boarders declined sharply among the Italians to 11.4 percent and 19.7 percent for the Poles. The Polish boarders had lived at home with their wives for an average of six years before emigrating, and the Italians, only one year. Of these Italian boarders, 30.5 percent returned home to marry and then came back alone. Uncommon among the Poles, only 8.7 percent followed this pattern of settlement. (47)

That the immigrants often left the city in considerable numbers during periods of deteriorating economic conditions, is supported by general comments made by school authorities and statistics reporting the annual number of employees at the General Electric Company. However, a description of the out-migration of the two immigrant groups cannot be done with any accuracy. Of the 207 adult males whom Pasquale DeMarco enumerated for the Italian section of the 1897 city directory, eighty-two did not reappear in the 1905 volume. While DeMarco included boarders, who comprised a substantial proportion of the colony, the regular editions of the directory largely ignored them in favor of heads of families and especially businessmen. A similar invalid rate of out-migration resulted for the Poles when the names of 181 male parishioners, appearing in a 1910 report of St. Adalbert's were checked against the city directory of the same year. Only twenty-two (12.2 percent) were located. (48)

Despite their limitations, the directories do provide a partial view of the extent of immigrant persistence. Of 192 Italians listed in the 1905 directory, 36.5 percent remained five years later. For 235 Poles, 33.2 percent persisted. This low rate of persistence should not be surprising since the five-year period spanned the Panic of 1907 which temporarily throttled the economic growth of the city. Considerable mobility within the city occurred during the same five years. For the Poles, 57.7 percent changed residences as did 70 percent of the Italians. Almost as many moved within their neighborhood as sought housing in another ward. (49)

Between the years 1910 and 1920 the pattern of immigrant settlement underwent change (see Table 1.17). Wards Two, Nine, Ten and Thirteen continued to be popular among Italians. Those in Mt. Pleasant (Ward Nine) increased by 192.4 percent during the decade. In the two older and congested neighborhoods, Italian population declined in one (Fifth Ward), but increased moderately in the other (Third Ward), which remained the largest Italian neighborhood, with 28.7 percent of the total population. Significant Polish growth, however, was confined to the two wards where their churches were located, the Sixth and Ninth Wards. Increasing by 60.2 percent, the Poles in Mt. Pleasant comprised 42.8 percent of the total colony by the end of the decade, making the ward the preeminent area of Polish settlement. Although the Poles had been initially attracted to the newer tracts of housing developed along the periphery of the American Locomotive Company in the Second Ward, no further growth occurred in this section which was located at a considerable distance from the two Polish churches. Despite its proximity to the General Electric Company, the downtown Fifth Ward became less attractive to the Poles, whose numbers here declined as did those of the Italians. Unlike the Italians, however, the Polish presence in the Third Ward declined sharply, experiencing a 144.4 percent reduction.

Table 1.17

Foreign-Born Italians and Poles by Ward, 1910-1920

Source: Thirteenth Census: 1910. Population, III, 260; Fourteenth Census: 1920. Population, III, 720.

The Third Ward, in fact, had become dominated by Italians. Those whose parents were native-born had comprised 22.8 percent of the population in 1910, but dropped to 13.9 percent in 1920. The outflow of Poles lowered the total foreign born during the decade from 46.5 percent to 39.8 percent, while the foreign-born Italians in the Third Ward rose from 22.2 percent to 26.3 percent. With the addition of their children, the Italians comprised a majority of the population. The 1900 and 1910 censuses reveal that the Italians and Poles lived interspersed throughout the Front Street neighborhood of the Ward. Although immigrant families often rented whole buildings, living in one flat and subletting the others to families or boarders, the two immigrant groups were not often found in the same building. (50) By the 1920s the period of settlement was largely completed. The groups were by then found in almost half of the wards of the city.

Notes — Chapter 1

  1. Knights Templar Souvenir (Schenectady, 1907), p. 5; Joel Henry Monroe, Schenectady, Ancient and Modern (Geneva, N.Y.: By the author, 1914), pp. 218-221, 277; Larry Hart, Schenectady's Golden Era, 1880-1930 (Scotia, N.Y.: Old Dorp Books, 1974), p. 3.
  2. The Zabriskies were descendants of Albrecht Zaborowski, an exiled Polish nobleman who claimed descent from King John Sobieski. In 1662 Zaborowski came to America where he and his children intermarried with some of the most prominent Dutch and English colonial families. The original family name, "Zaborowski," subsequently became "Zabriskie" and with some branches of the family, "Zborowski." See Joseph A. Wytrwal, America's Polish Heritage: A Social History of the Poles in America (Detroit: Endurance Press, 1961), pp. 28-31.
  3. Thaddeus Ogonowski, "Polish Pioneers in American and Local History," talk given at Schenectady County Historical Society, (1942), pp. 2-3. (Typewritten.)
  4. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels Through America in 1797-1799, 1805, trans. and edited by Metchie J. E. Budka, (Elizabeth: Grassman, 1965), pp. 188, 238; Eleven Poles were living in the city in 1855 (New York State Census, Report of the 1855 Census, p. 146); Schenectady Gazette, September 8, 1904; George W. Briskie, "Polish Immigration to Schenectady," a collection of individual reports prepared for the Works Progress Administration, Writers Project Research Files, 1938, p. 1; United States Federal Manuscript Census, Schenectady, 1900. (Hereafter cited as USFMC.)
  5. For example, in 1875, besides the Gapczynskis, there were only a family of five and two other Poles in the city, (New York State Manuscript Census, Schenectady, N.Y., 1875.) Hereafter cited as NYSMC.
  6. New York State Census, Report of the 1865 Census, pp. 158-159; Evening Star, June 29, 1874; Schenectady Weekly Reflector, July, 1874; NYSMC, 1875.
  7. Evening Star, June 10, 1876, April 7, 1883.
  8. Evening Star clipping (dated 1883) in scrapbook K1, p. 12, Schenectady Historian's Office; Evening Star, January 2, 1882.
  9. Evening Star, November 24, 1903, August 4, 1904, April 4, 1905, February 27, 1906, September 27, 1908; Record, December 20, 1929, January 31, 1930.
  10. By 1904, General Electric was employing 10,000 workers and American Locomotive, 6,000. In 1921, the employment figures would be: General Electric, 18,500 and American Locomotive, 5,000 (Evening Star, June 14, 1904; Union Star, March 4, 1921).
  11. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census: 1910, Population, III, 187.
  12. The 1892 state manuscript census does not list the relationship of individuals or even the separate households, but heads of households, wives, children, relatives and boarders can be determined with considerable accuracy from the recording of surname, sex, age, position in list, and occupation (NYSMC, 1892).
  13. Caroline Golab, "The Impact of the Industrial Experience on the Immigrant Family: The Huddled Masses Reconsidered," in Immigrants in Industrial America, 1850-1920, ed. by Richard L. Ehrlich (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), p. 18.
  14. NYSMC, 1892.
  15. Evening Star, September 23, 26, 1893.
  16. Ibid., September 27, 28, 1893.
  17. Daily Union, May 19, 1897; Record, December 20, 1929, June 13, 1930.
  18. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census: 1930. Population, III, Part 2, 300-301, 304.
  19. Fourteenth Census: 1920, III, 720-725.
  20. Fifteenth Census: 1930, III, Part 2, 702.
  21. Ibid., 304.
  22. George Briskie, "Polish Immigration to Schenectady," pp. 1-2; Ogonowski, "Polish Pioneers in American and Local History," pp. 10-12; USFMC, 1900.
  23. NYSMC, 1892.
  24. Ibid., Schenectady Directory, 1897, pp. 293-294.
  25. USFMC, 1900; Evening Star, July 1, 1893; Edwin Fenton, Immigrants and Unions, A Case Study: Italians and American Labor, 1870-1920 (New York: Arno Press, 1975), p. 40.
  26. Daily Union, November 18, 1903.
  27. The Citizen, July 7, 1911.
  28. (Schenectady County News], American Education (December 1914), p. 244.
  29. The data on household size and number of children per immigrant family were compiled from the federal manuscript schedules for 1900 and 1910. A 25 percent sample of Italian and Polish households was used for 1910 (U.S., Thirteenth Census: 1910. Population, III, 260).
  30. USFMC, 1900, 1910.
  31. Thirteenth Census: 1910, III, 260; Daily Union, May 12, July 6, 1906; Mayor's Message, Proceedings of the Common Council (Schenectady, N.Y., 1910), pp. 8-9.
  32. Daily Union, February 27, 1906.
  33. Fourteenth Census: 1920, III, 720.
  34. USFMC, 1900, 1910.
  35. See, for example, the story of the assault on a person of Irish descent who allegedly refused to rent his flat (33 John Street) to either Italians or Poles, Evening Star, July 22, 24, 1905.
  36. Sale of property by James Felthousen to Junius G. Fallon, December 14, 1906, Schenectady County Clerk, Deeds, Book #163, p. 497. An Italian family, Mr. & Mrs. Nicando Ottaviano, purchased this property on Avenue B in the 1920s (interview with Mrs. Amelia Ottaviano, July 27, 1983).
  37. Felthousen's plot was filed on November 8, 1901, Schenectady County Clerk, Map Book #16, p. 433.
  38. For a sample of other Felthousen conveyances, see April 1, August 27, 1902, April 12, 1905; Felthousen also had property in the Third Ward where the only buyers were generally Italians and Poles. For a conveyance of a lot sold for $500 to a Pole, see Book #157, p. 140.
  39. Union Star, June 17, 1917.
  40. The Citizen, May 21, 1915.
  41. Eugene E. Obidinski, Ethnic to Status Group: A Study of Polish Americans in Buffalo (Ph.D. dissertation, SUNY at Buffalo, 1968), pp. 2, 3, 32, 33; USFMC, 1900, 1910.
  42. Data collected from marriage registers (1903-1907) at St. Adalbert's that listed 130 grooms born in Russian Poland.
  43. Record, January 31, 1930.
  44. John Briggs, An Italian Passage: Immigrants to Three American Cities, 1890-1930 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 76-77.
  45. St. Anthony's Marriage Registers, 1918-1922.
  46. Ibid.; Evening Star, November 30, 1906.
  47. USFMC, 1900, 1910.
  48. Schenectady Directory, 1897, 1905; Wykaz, Parałji, św. Wojciecha w Schenectady, N.Y. 1910-1912, (Utica, [1912]), pp. 3-7.
  49. Schenectady Directory, 1905, 1910.
  50. USFMC, 1900, 1910.

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